Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Triangulating Rome: Du Bellay, Spenser, and the Fantasy of Perspective

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Triangulating Rome: Du Bellay, Spenser, and the Fantasy of Perspective

Article excerpt

For Renaissance writers and thinkers, to be a humanist and devout Christian demanded a particular strategy for contemplating the past, present, and future. The triad of the Roman pagan past, the current state of Christian Europe, and the eschatological future of one's soul all had to be negotiated. Petrarch, the first major Christian humanist, performs this negotiation as he describes an encounter with Rome in the Canzoniere.1 The poem shifts between the past, the Christian destiny of the soul, and the temptations of the present:

L'aspetto sacro de la terra vostra

Mi fa del mal passato tragger guai

Gridando : 'Sta'su, misero, che fai?'

Et la via de salir al ciel mi mostra.

[The holy sight of your city makes me bewail my evil past, crying: 'Get up, wretch! What are you doing?' and shows me the way to mount to Heaven.'] (Canzoniere 68, 1-4)2

The 'terra vostra', Rome, exists in three separate, layered entities. It is, as always for Petrarch, the conceptual and philological site of Roman literature and the Roman past. It is also a city to visit as a tourist; a city that Petrarch had been warned might not live up to the expectations created by his extensive reading.3 The city, finally, is the true site of the Papacy, which has the ability to show him the way to eternal life.4 For the reader, Petrarch's encounter with Rome produces a triangulated poetic experience. Petrarch faces the image of the city of Rome in the present. The act of doing so plunges his thoughts into the past ('del mal passato'), while this act of looking back in time and returning to the present brings Petrarch, finally, to consider the divine and the eternal as he is shown 'la via de salir al ciel' ('the way to climb to heaven'). Rome as a city, Rome as ruins, and Rome as a spiritual homeland all merge in Petrarch's imagination.

This essay will explore this particular compositional and perspectival strategy on display in Petrarch's work and later imitated by two major poetic innovators: Joachim du Bellay in France and Edmund Spenser in England. Though the poets' most active years occurred decades apart, Spenser began his career confronting du Bellay's poetry. Spenser's earliest published work was a translation of du Bellay included in Jan van der Noot's A Theatre for Worldlings. Taking on larger questions of how triangular composition and perspective, so important to the study of Renaissance art history since the work of Panofsky and Wölfflin (and recently revived by Rebecca Zorach), can be applied productively to the development of the Renaissance lyric, this essay will pursue the influence of a triangulated imagination on the work of representing the Roman world and Roman ruined spaces. The imitative strategies of du Bellay and Spenser (and van der Noot) can be productively interpreted as sharing a similar philological and historical energy, drawing up the past into the present only to shiftfocus upwards to the divine and eternal. Using triangulation as a spiritually-charged representative strategy, the anti-worldly poems of these poets offer an empowered awareness of human life caught between the dead past, the living present, and the divine and infinite future beyond this world. The poems invite us to read melancholy images of the world's decay as enlightening, energizing, and imaginatively rich, eschewing sectarian statements for poetic experiences.

Before turning to the poems themselves, some discussion of the philosophical and aesthetic resonance of triangles and triangulation will provide important background to Petrarch and his imitators' poetic strategies. Triangulation, as Zorach has argued, worked on a theoretical and philosophical level that linked both triangular composition (the triangular arrangement of figures in an image) and triangulated perspective (the geometric technique giving images a perceived planar depth).5 Triangles, since Plato's Timaeus, were associated with the building blocks of the divine. …

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